If you’re hoping to get a three-row hybrid, you’re unfortunately not going to have many choices. The Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer are really the only players – the Kia Sorento has a third row, but it’s more for occasional use. There are also some luxury-badged plug-in hybrids, but their prices put them well beyond the Highlander and Explorer. So let's take a closer look at this pair, but we'll tell you right now that they are extremely different. Which is better for you? Take a look at the answers to the questions below and it should be pretty obvious which would be a better fit for your needs.
Which gets better fuel economy?
Since we’re talking about the Explorer and Highlander hybrids, let's start off with fuel economy. In short, the Highlander wins by a landslide. It returns 35 mpg city, 35 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined with all-wheel drive (front-wheel drive gets 36 mpg). The all-wheel-drive Explorer Hybrid returns 23 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined (rear-wheel-drive get 27 mpg combined).
That’s as big of a difference as it seems. According to EPA annual fuel costs estimates, the Highlander Hybrid AWD would cost you $1,550 per year to fill up. The Explorer would cost you $2,200. Now, it should be said that the Explorer Hybrid is certainly better than the 22-mpg standard Explorer engine.
So, what’s the deal here? Why is the Explorer Hybrid so much lower? See the next section.
Which is more powerful?
The Highlander Hybrid features a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motors that combine for 243 horsepower. It can tow 3,500 pounds. The Explorer Hybrid, on the other hand, features a 3.3-liter V6 and an electric motor that together produce 318 hp. It can tow 5,000 pounds. In case it’s not obvious, the Explorer’s acceleration is greatly superior and sounds a lot better than Toyota’s droning hybrid powertrain.
In short, the Explorer Hybrid offers more power and slightly better efficiency than the base Explorer engine. The Highlander, meanwhile, sacrifices some performance for fuel economy that blows away the competition.
Which is better to drive?
Because of the superior acceleration produced by its smoother, quieter powertrain, we would give the nod to the Explorer here. Neither is one of the more engaging offerings in the segment, but they also don’t disappoint. This certainly isn’t a reason to choose or avoid either.
Which is more comfortable?
The suspensions of both the Highlander and Explorer Hybrid are tuned for comfort (some would argue to their detriment), so we doubt anyone would object to the ride quality of either. Third-row space aside (see below), we haven’t noticed anything objectionable about seat comfort in either, but that’s an awfully personal preference that can only be fully answered by back-to-back test drives.
Which has a nicer interior?
Big-time victory for the Toyota Highlander here. Not only does it have one of the more impressive cabins in the segment with a handsome design and above-average materials quality (especially in the top trim level shown here), but the Explorer quite frankly disappoints on both fronts. Things get spruced up a fair bit in the King Ranch and Timberline with their unique color schemes, but they’re not available as hybrids, and in general, the Explorer has one of the weakest cabins among three-row family SUVs.
Which has better infotainment technology?
The Highlander got Toyota’s latest touchscreen infotainment system for 2023. While its graphics and processing speeds are top notch, its functionality frustrates. Radio functionality is odd, the navigation map deletes your zoom and orientation preferences when you move away to another screen, and there’s no easy way (like a home button) to quickly exit Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. The Explorer’s Sync3 touchscreen interfaces share the same Apple/Android escape issue, but is generally the easier system to use whether you get the standard 8-inch screen (below left) or 10.1-inch vertically oriented screen (above left). We’d add the bigger screen doesn’t really enhance functionality like you might expect, but we’d generally rather use it than Toyota’s.
Which has the bigger back seat?
Second-row space should be comparable between these two, and like most in the segment, there is a choice of bench and second-row captain’s chairs. The third rows are where the big differences lie. The Highlander basically has the least spacious third-row in the segment (there’s a reason Toyota is introducing a Grand Highlander), and while the Explorer’s is far from class-leading, big kids, teenagers and some adults will be far happier back there.
Which has more cargo capacity and functionality?
Another victory for the Explorer. Thanks to a removable floor panel, there is more space behind the raised third row than most competitors. The Highlander, by contrast, has less space back there than most competitors. The Explorer also has more space when all rows are lowered, but since we’re talking about such large spaces, the difference of a few cubic-feet is ultimately negligible in practice.
Which is safer?
In terms of crash tests and ratings, it’s a tie.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the Highlander a Top Safety Pick+ for its best-possible crash protection and crash prevention scores. Its headlight ratings varied depending on trim level, and its LATCH anchors received a rating of "Good" for ease of use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Highlander five out of five stars for overall crash protection, along with a four-star frontal rating and five-star side rating.
The Explorer got a perfect five stars in all government crash tests performed, plus a solid four-star rollover rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named it a Top Safety Pick+ in 2022 due to its best-possible performance in all crash tests and top scores for its standard accident avoidance tech. Its headlights were rated "Acceptable," thus allowing it to get the Top Safety Pick+ prize.
In terms of safety tech and driver assistance features, both come with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot warning. The Highlander also includes adaptive cruise control; it’s an option for the Explorer.
Are there versions that stand out more than others?
The entire Ford Explorer lineup offers a greater variety of trim levels that satisfy different tastes. There’s the sporty ST-Line and ST, the luxurious Platinum and King Ranch, and the off-road-oriented Timberline. Unfortunately, the Hybrid can only be had as the Limited and Platinum, which not only limits its variety but raises the cost of entry. The Highlander Hybrid, by contrast, is available in every Highlander trim level, save the sportier XSE, but counters with its own, unique trim level the Bronze Edition. That’s basically just an appearance package with, you guessed it, various bronze trim pieces, but it’s something.
When was the last time they were redesigned?
The current-generation Ford Explorer dates back to the 2020 model year, and as far as the Hybrid is concerned, has not been updated since. The Highlander was also last redesigned for 2020, but 2023 saw the noteworthy addition of the latest Toyota tech interface.
Which is cheaper and offers more equipment?
Because the Explorer Hybrid isn’t available in the gas-only model’s base or XLT trim levels, the price of entry is a hefty $55,245, including destination charges. The Highlander Hybrid, which starts off at the LE trim level (the second in the gas-only range), has a base price of $41,555. In fact, even the most expensive Highlander Hybrid trim level, the Platinum, costs less than the entry-level Explorer Hybrid.
Now, this speaks to two elements: the Explorer Hybrid being as much a performance upgrade as it is a fuel economy choice, but also Ford’s decision to limit the Hybrid to upper trim levels. That doesn’t change the fact that the Highlander Hybrid is substantially cheaper and includes more equipment for less money.
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